25 years ago, Ball State University [Muncie, Indiana] created an Entrepreneurship major with a final exam worthy of the label “high-stakes.” The New Venture Creation course – the capstone of BSU’s Entrepreneurship major and the only one of its kind – draws upon 4 years of study in the liberal arts and business. The course’s premise is simple; students create a business plan through the semester and present it to a panel of businessmen at the end.
Pitch your plan successfully and you pass. But drop the ball and you not only fail the course, but you don’t graduate from BSU with a degree in entrepreneurship [though the ~25% who fail are welcome to try again next semester].
And as exciting and unique as a ‘winner-takes-all’ philosophy is in higher education, it might not even be the most compelling aspect of BSU’s ambitious entrepreneurship project.
The program, a division of BSU’s Miller College of Business, started in 1983. It has always been about purposeful innovation, says Dr. Larry Cox, Director of the Entrepreneurship Center. “We try to be unique – we try to do what no one else is doing or we try to find new ways to do it.”
Consider the Nascent 500 Business Plan Challenge that the Center began last year. Most business plan competitions are roughly the same; teams submit proposals that are judged on their merits or their relevance to the competition’s mission. But the Nascent 500 builds on that model and embodies the commitment to the entrepreneurial spirit that Cox and the Center tout:
- 500-word abstracts accompany a business plan submitted for evaluation; 12 undergraduate teams move on to qualifying at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway;
- $500 is awarded to each member of the 12 qualifying teams;
- Teams have 500 words to pitch their plan to investors in the back of a limousine as it makes a lap around the Speedway.
“We took the standard business plan competition model and changed the experience. We attract a good, competitive group and we have a lot of fun.”
In short, BSU practices exactly the entrepreneurship that they preach.
In his 3-year tenure at the Center, Cox has continued the innovation that has made Ball State a nationally-recognized name in entrepreneurship education. Traditionally, Cox explains, schools focus on the implementation of business plans, raising capital, etc. BSU focuses not just on those standards, but also on creating and developing ideas.
“We’ve built [the Center] around the idea that entrepreneurship, at its core, is creative problem-solving. The search for the idea is the search for a problem that’s worth solving,” Cox says. “First, we teach them how to find a problem.”
The Entrepreneurship major consists of nine courses; electives, other majors/minors and required liberal arts courses are often the inspiration for projects in and out of school. “We start with passion. Our students bring some content to the table from personal and professional interests,” Cox explains.
And that marriage between process and content – mixing prior knowledge, academic studies and problem-solving – is what makes BSU’s Entrepreneurship major such an impressive undergraduate track. Students leave the program with practical, relevant knowledge and experience with the processes in which it operates. They enter the job market ready to contribute – and Entrepreneur Magazine, US News and Princeton Review and others notice year after year.
Graduating seniors get a unique opportunity to meet and network with successful entrepreneurs through The Ascent Awards, given annually by the Entrepreneurship Center to those who not only impress with their business success, but also with the “energy, grit and determination of the undertaking.” Ten businesspeople are listed for the students; they choose 3 who they want to emulate.
The idea, Cox says, is “to reach out nationally and find people who have not quite hit the radar screen or who are unique in some way.” Then Ball State students talk with the three finalists and ask them about the challenges they faced – and especially how they dealt with them – on the way to their entrepreneurial success. A dinner caps the festivities, at which the three finalists are honored and a winner is announced [click here for a recap video of the 2007 Ascent Awards].
Studying entrepreneurship isn’t a license to pretend that you’re a high-profile venture capitalist through 4 years of college. The academic rigor and professional experience provided by Ball State University’s Entrepreneurship major inspire 40% of its graduates to start a business after leaving the University. “If you think about entrepreneurship and economic development,” Cox says, “it’s central to our economic well-being. When [students] come in, we don’t define their career path. We ask them, ‘What’s your dream? What are you excited about?’”
Ball State University’s Entrepreneurship Center teaches them how to evaluate what they’re passionate about and make it into a business. Cox sums up the program and says what every department head in the country would like to say with sincerity about his graduates: “They go on and implement what they’ve learned.”